Tony Kushner: Disraeli and the racial myths of Victorian Britain

From a speech by the professor of history at Southampton University, given to the Jewish Museum in London

Much has been written on the self-construction of Benjamin Disraeli. That is not to imply that his was an opportunist and contrived identity. His belief, for example, that "all was race" was, I believe, genuinely held.

Race thinking was increasingly important in the 19th century, although it should be remembered that there were many varieties of racial thought, and some Victorians did not subscribe to such thinking at all. And the particular form of race thinking that Disraeli articulated was unique.

Disraeli believed in racial hierarchy and racial supremacy - a view which, while articulated early, was not atypical of Victorian intellectuals. As a believer in a natural aristocracy, however, he had to justify why he, Disraeli, of the Jewish race, was fit to be at the head of the British aristocracy. To square the circle, he bought into the idea of Sephardi supremacy, creating for himself a false pedigree of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish heritage and ignoring the more prominent Italian ancestry of his father's side of the family.

As a Sephardi, Disraeli believed himself racially fit for a position of leadership. Like Sidonia [the character in one of his novels], he believed, that while he was very English, his alien background gave him objectivity in leading Britain to greatness.

It is easy to dismiss the racial themes in Disraeli's fiction as nonsense. But in terms of self-fashioning, it was crucial, giving a sense of place, identity and mission to a young man who had collapsed in nervous exhaustion in his twenties.

The novels have to be taken seriously in understanding how Disraeli perceived himself and prepared to take the remarkable step of leading the Conservatives, a party that on grounds of religion, nationality and morality, objected even to the emancipation of the Jews in Britain.

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